- The Washington Times - Friday, June 8, 2018

LAS VEGAS — Even the most ardent fans of the Washington Capitals might need a second to remember who Pheonix Copley is.

He was the Capitals’ third-string goalie throughout their Stanley Cup Playoffs run and has yet to see game action in a Washington sweater. He made 912 saves in 41 games for the AHL Hershey Bears this year and made a few trips to the major-league club when both Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer nursed minor injuries in March.

After the Capitals won the 2018 Stanley Cup Thursday night over the Vegas Golden Knights in a thrilling Game 5, Copley took photos with Holtby, Grubauer, consultant and former goalie Olaf Kolzig and the rest of the goalie department. He celebrated on the ice along with the Capitals’ other “black aces”: Travis Boyd, Nathan Walker and Shane Gersich.

These were the players the Capitals called up from Hershey as the playoffs got underway. Joined by rookie Madison Bowey, who hasn’t played since February, and Jakub Jerabek, another defenseman on the bench, the group’s average age is between 23 and 24, and they played a combined 107 regular season games and just six postseason games. But that hardly means they were not a real part of the run.

“It’s good to be a part of it and see these guys, how resilient of a group these guys are, and just being around them and seeing the stuff that they’ve been through and to come out on top,” Copley said. “It’s cool to be a part of and cool to be around and cool to know this group of guys.”

Coach Barry Trotz pointed out out the importance of his black aces after Wednesday’s practice, because the Capitals might not have passed the second round without some of them.

“We can go back to the game in Pittsburgh: No Nick Backstrom, no Burakovsky, no Tom Wilson. And I’m putting in Travis Boyd, Nathan Walker, really first playoff games, and they’re probably in the most pivotal game in franchise history if you’re a Caps fan, and they performed fantastic,” Trotz said.

“Those guys have to step in at probably the most inopportune moment to showcase what they can do and they did that. I think it’s really important that those guys are part of it. They have been. We haven’t carried a lot of people, but the ones we have are gonna be the next generation.”

Alex Chiasson, essentially the Capitals’ 13th forward, is not technically a black ace but also did not play during the Stanley Cup Final. But he and Walker showed up in the clutchest of clutch moments back in the Pittsburgh series. Playing on the fourth line in Game 6, Walker wrapped around Matt Murray’s net and hit Chiasson at the right circle for the only regulation goal that Washington went on to win in overtime.

Chiasson said the moment was surreal.

“You can’t ask for anything better for a player,” he said. “This sport is such a team sport. You need every guy to contribute. I didn’t play in the Stanley Cup Final but I came up with a big goal against Pittsburgh. I thought when I was playing, I was playing really well. To be with my family with me here, it’s hard to describe.”

Chiasson and the black aces weren’t swarmed with cameras and reporters on the ice Thursday the way Alex Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom was, but this was the Stanley Cup Final, after all, and media traveled from China, Europe and Australia. Walker, not long after becoming the first Australian player to make an NHL roster, became the first Australian to win a Stanley Cup.

Kolzig let out a yell when he saw Walker and embraced him: “The man from down under!” And an Australian reporter was there to interview him, as well.

Walker recapped his season — he made the Capitals but was waived, briefly picked up by the Edmonton Oilers, then returned to Washington — calling it “a long journey.”

“It was a roller coaster of a season and it’s just such an incredible moment right now and such an incredible feeling,” he said.

Would he rank it as the greatest of his life?

“My to-be wife might have a question about that,” Walker quipped, with his fiancée standing nearby.

Another interesting case is that of Jerabek, whom, like fellow defenseman and Czech countryman Michal Kempny, the Capitals acquired in February just shy of the trade deadline. Kempny teamed up with John Carlson to make a strong defensive pairing; Jerabek played the first two playoff games against Columbus and notched an assist, but then lost his spot to rookie Christian Djoos.

Of the black aces, Jerabek was particularly speechless.

“Me and especially Michal, for him it’s amazing that… I don’t know what to say now,” he said.

What is he supposed to say? How are players supposed to feel when they individually don’t get into the most important games of their teams’ year?

“It wasn’t easy being here two months and lot of skates, just practicing,” Jerabek said. “But it was really fun to be with this team. It’s awesome group, awesome people around, the coaching staff and especially the guys. It’s really fun and can’t say… Best three months.”

“You play hockey all your life, that’s what you dream of. It’s gotta be the best (moment),” Copley said. “The only way you can top it, like I said, is to be in the games and that’s what I’m gonna do next.”

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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